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WHY WE PLAY THE MILITARY BOWL

By: Noah Frank


WASHINGTON — With the advent of a National Championship Game and now the College Football Playoff, one complaint was that the added focus on crowning a champion would cause the other bowls would lose their relevance. Those in charge of the Military Bowl — played this year between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis — are seeing to it that those involved get the most out of their postseason experience. The lesser bowls are easy to mock, whether because of their names, their obscure sponsors or even the participants from smaller conferences, of which casual fans may not have ever heard. The Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. The TaxSlayer Bowl. The Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. But across the board, they serve as a reward for months of preparation and physical sacrifice. For many seniors, it will be the last time they will ever put on pads and don a uniform. Don’t tell the players at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that bowl games don’t matter. The Blazers went 6-6 in what they would later find out would be the final season of football at the school. UAB made the decision to disband the program for financial reasons, becoming the first major program to cut football since the University of the Pacific in 1995. Devastated Blazers players waited in vain for a bowl invitation that would never come, for a chance to play one last game. That was the primary message from the keynote speaker at the Military Bowl luncheon on Friday at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown D.C. After a couple days of sightseeing and team building over the holidays, both teams gathered in a banquet hall with bands, cheer squads, coaches and alumni, numbering nearly 500 in all. But during the most important part of the program — and, arguably, the entire week leading up to the game — there was complete silence as they took in the message, transfixed on the man delivering it. Col. Greg Gadson was a football player at West Point from 1995-98 before entering active duty. After nearly 20 years of service, he was returning from a memorial service for two fallen soldiers in Baghdad when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb. As he recalled to those in attendance Friday, he had to be resuscitated at the scene, and only survived because of the tourniquets applied. Gadson lost both legs, but his story was only beginning. One of his former Cadet teammates flew with him from Iraq to the hospital in Germany. Another met him on the ground back in the states. He referenced them personally by name and rank, but also by jersey number and position from their playing days together. Football and the military share many common terms and descriptors. And while most are cognizant enough not to try to compare a game to wartime service on an equal footing, many of the lessons of teamwork and perseverance can be learned in both settings. Never was that more clear than in Gadson’s words on Friday. “The opportunity to play football has created opportunities in your life that have yet to reveal themselves to you,” he told the players. Gadson’s reputation for inspirational speaking, especially in a sports context, preceded him. He famously gave a speech to a struggling New York Giants team in 2007 prior to their contest against the Redskins at FedExField. The Giants went on to win that game and nine more, knocking off the undefeated New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLII. The Giants gave Gadson his own Super Bowl ring in appreciation. On Friday, Gadson addressed everyone, but pointed his words at the seniors. “It is an opportunity for you to find out what life is about,” he said of the teamwork fostered through years of playing together. There are other military elements to the game. The beneficiary is the USO, and tickets for the game are made available to active-duty troops, reservists and their families. The game’s title sponsor is Northrop-Grumman and it is played on the Naval Academy campus. But the lessons of enduring brotherhood, of working for your teammates instead of yourself, are what define the pageantry surrounding this particular bowl unique. It’s what makes the teams playing lucky to be chosen. Original publication can be found at http://wtop.com/ncaa-football/2014/12/play-military-bowl/.